Presiding Bishop preaches at St. Thomas, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Posted Sep 14, 2015

St. Thomas, Lancaster, PA
(Diocese of Central Pennsylvania)
13 September 2015

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

I saw a billboard recently that read, “Religion is Power.” It was in the middle of a gritty part of industrial Brooklyn, and there are apparently others like it in Chicago. It has something to do with the five year old movie The Book of Eli. I think most of us would say that ‘Religion is Power,’ has something to do with why we’re here this morning, and it’s exactly what Wisdom and Jesus are talking about.

Human beings have always looked for ways of understanding the mysteries around us, grieving the painful parts of life and celebrating the joyful ones. Ancient human burials are marked with special care for the dead – bones painted with ochre, flowers laid over the corpse, precious items placed with the body. More than 2.5 million years ago our ancestors were carefully depositing the bodies of their kin in a deep South African cave.[1]

Religion is shared understandings and practices that bind a group together. Liturgies and sacred rituals are developed out of awareness of the power involved in life and death. When we treat that power carefully, finding ways to help human beings and communities navigate the challenges of human existence, we can speak of constructive, creative religious practice – like Jesus’ claim of abundant life for all. When we know the preciousness and fragility of human life, it can evoke compassionate response, like answering the cry of a baby or the cries of a people fleeing war.

Yet we all know that religion can just as easily be used for ill and even downright evil. Vulnerable people are sexually abused by hands and minds warped by the power accumulated by some. Cults and fundamentalist religious communities use psychological and spiritual power, and sometimes physical force, to control their members. Prosperity gospel preachers in many parts of the world simply say, “send me money, and you, too, will be rich.”

In the deepest recesses of our hearts we want to understand and control whatever makes us anxious or fearful – sickness, death, competition for scarce resources, human violence, want and hunger, the natural violence of storm, flood, and earthquake; in short, all the random forms of human suffering. The grief we know in the death of loved ones evokes questions of Why? What went wrong? How could we have prevented this?

Sometimes the urge to understand, control, or prevent those agonies results in blaming, controlling, or excluding part of the human community – the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, kidnapping and drugging children to be soldiers, forcing one group to serve another.

We see that playing out right now in the varied reactions to the refugee crisis in Europe, the rampant violence of ISIS, Boko Haram, and the appallingly misnamed Lord’s Resistance Army, or even the fight over the Iran peace agreement. We can see attempts to control or blame in the micro-aggression of one child asking a classmate why she’s fat or another why he has two mothers. The search to eliminate anxiety and fear lies behind the demonizing of migrants, and the assumption that people whose skin color or language is different must be evil and out to destroy us and our way of life. We do it as a society as well as individually. We look for people to punish for the unpredictability of life.

An effective counselor might ask us, “How’s that working for you?”

Last time I checked, not very well. When I’m afraid that the driver next to me on the freeway is going to cut me off, and if I get nasty and competitive, in the end it doesn’t make me feel one bit safer. When you walk into a room of people you don’t know, are you meeting strangers or intriguing possibilities? How do we react to a dirty man sitting on the sidewalk asking for change? Well, Jesus sits in the dirt, too, asking for change in our hearts and laws and ways of living.

Proverbs puts it well – avoiding Wisdom means living in panic, but searching her out brings security and fearlessness. Wisdom is the personification of God’s ways, God’s spirit, bringing healing and wholeness to a frightened and broken world. The gospels call Jesus Wisdom’s prophet and Wisdom’s child, because he teaches those around him how to live a good and just life – what the ancients called a righteous life. It means living in harmony with God, neighbor, and self, recognizing that we are not God. Acting as though we are God is what all that control and compulsion is about – using human power over human beings in place of discerning and cooperating with God’s power – and being co-creators. What we receive from Wisdom might be called “good” religion – that leads to more abundant life, rather than less of it. Is that what’s happening in Germany’s response to the refugee crisis, as the nation bends over backwards to welcome strangers?

The godly power of religion is what we call love – the humble willingness to be a servant. It looks like empowering others, building up the ability to transform the world – our neighbors and ourselves – instead of hoarding power or seeking control. Maybe it’s easier to think about how we relate to the natural disasters that have always confronted human beings. Think about a powerful river. When we want a new bridge, do we ignore the possibility of flooding and arrogantly or ignorantly build one that’s too low or flimsy? Or do we think about how to make a passageway across the river that in some way collaborates with the native power of the river? If we can use some of the river’s power constructively to facilitate the crossing we’ve found a certain abundance.

When Jesus tells his friends he’s going to die in Jerusalem, Peter tries to shut down the conversation. Jesus chides him, and says if you want to find the true power in life, you have to let go, you have to be willing to die. For most of us that doesn’t look like being nailed to a cross, but it may look like setting down some of our need to control others as a way of trying to protect ourselves. Jesus is really saying that if you want to experience some of the creative power behind all life in the universe, you’re going to have to let go. Closing down the valve on this river isn’t going to work – it’s not controllable. If we can open up, however, we’re likely going to have the ride of our lives, and discover the unregulated power of a wild God.

Just as trying to dam up a flooding river usually can’t fix the problem, trying to contain God’s power with theological fences, scarlet letters, or altar police will never make life safer or more predictable. Those baptismal waters get us started riding the river – but if we try to jump out of the river or throw out the other waveriders we’re only going to live pinched and frustrated lives. But when we can live and love with abandon, for however long we have one another, we discover the wild God who made Leviathan for the sport of it, and sent his son to invite us all to jump in with both feet…and both arms, head and heart, soul and strength.

Annie Dillard said we should hand out life jackets and crash helmets in church. This is a dangerous, life-demanding meeting, for it holds the power to change the world. Grab your neighbor’s hand and jump in. Let go, even a little, and discover the power of love beyond imagining.